Live Longer

Health is Wealth: Frugal Fitness Guide

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Anyone that knows us, knows that we are fitness fanatics. This is for a number of reasons. One, we are sticklers for efficiency, and obesity from over-eating and under exercising is pretty much the inverse of efficiency. Secondly, we both have a family history of health problems compounded by inactivity and obesity. And finally, we both want to spend as much quality time together. It goes without saying that healthy life choices increase life expectancy, and quality of life as we age.
I’d like to preface the meat and potatoes of this article by saying that this is a “do as we say, not as we do” situation. We consider fitness our one ‘luxury’ purchase that we continually make, and I’ll explain how we’ve come to that conclusion and how we’ve optimized it further in the article.
Exercise is funny. It literally costs nothing to do, yet somehow most people pay for all sorts of memberships, gym equipment for home, ‘As seen on TV’ infomercial crap, and even special clothes to do these things. We are going to cover each aspect of this and list out some free exercise options, so hopefully you’ll find some alternatives to save you a little money.
Gym Memberships
On a fundamental level, a gym is a place to pay to perform physical labor. When you say it like that, it amazes me that this type of place even exists, much less thrives. Here are a few statistics to put gym memberships into focus for you:

  • Over 57 million people, nearly 20% of the entire US population, have a gym membership.
  • The average yearly membership cost for one person is right at $500.

These two numbers are startling when you consider:

  • Gym owners expect only 18% of people who buy memberships to use them consistently.
  • 80% of people who join in January (New Year’s Resolution-ers) quit within 5 months.
  • Even 30% of the members that actually go to the gym reported that they don’t break a sweat because they are too busy socializing.

Low cost gyms (Planet Fitness, Workout Anytime, YouFit, etc.) actually bank on the likelihood that their members will never come to the gym. To be profitable, these places need about 10x more members than they can even fit in their facility. Another fun statistic, Alabama (home sweet home for us) is the state with the lowest gym participation at 10.2%.
Obviously the best case scenario is that you don’t get a membership at all. But if you insist on having a gym membership, the next best thing would be to get one at one of these low-cost gyms (under $15/month) and actually utilize it. Just know, that the statistics are stacked against you if you do this. But, we will assume since you are reading our blog, that you aren’t interested in wasting money and you’ll be the exception to the rule and you’ll actually utilize your membership. Another alternative is look into getting a membership through your health insurance, which is what we do. We pay a monthly amount through our insurance premiums (so its pre-tax) and we get a membership to any participating facility, which are thousands of places across the US. We find this incredibly beneficial when we go out of town and want to keep on our workout routine. We no longer have to pay any guest fees, which can range from $5-20 depending on the facility. Finally, the worst thing you could for a gym membership is to sign some contract for a monthly membership for $50 a month. Even if you use it, you are overpaying, and you’ve committed to overpay for potentially years.
Home Gym Equipment
A home gym is a better option for most than having a gym membership. With the yearly cost of a single gym membership approaching $500, a home gym can pay for itself pretty quickly. The benefits of having a home gym are pretty obvious: no monthly membership costs; no fuel costs to and from the gym; less excuses available because the gym is literally steps away. Now the drawbacks are similar as well. What’s the point in a home gym unless you actually use it? According to Consumer Reports 40% of people surveyed said they used their home equipment far less than they had planned. And that’s only the people that admitted it, I suspect that number is far higher. Ironically, Consumer Reports is also the company putting together a yearly “Buying Guide” for exercise equipment. I feel that they should shoulder some of the blame for that over-sized dust collector in many homes. Another drawback to the home gym is the availability of space. We have never had a spare bedroom, or a garage that could be used as a home gym. This, coupled with the fact that we plan to move multiple times in the next few years (house hacking) makes having a home gym unfeasible for us.
Much like typical gym memberships, there’s a right way, and a wrong way to go about it. Ideally, avoid machines, free-weights are not only going to likely save space, but they’ll have more uses and be better for you overall. For most, a simple set of dumbbells and a bench would suffice. For those with a little more space, and a longer wish list: a barbell, a rack, and some plates coupled with the aforementioned dumbbells and bench should cover all the needs of even the most experienced lifters. The most cost-effective way would be to source used equipment. Craigslist & Facebook Marketplace are teeming with unused equipment from once motivated individuals, and I’ve even seem some fitness facilities putting their commercial equipment on there for incredibly low prices. If you aren’t interested in used equipment, you can find manufacturers rejects (mislabeled, damaged, old designs, or even used at an event) at a significant discount. And then, of course, you could pay full price for the same equipment, and save zero dollars, but I don’t find that likely.
As Seen on TV
This one is an easy topic to cover. Don’t do it. Just don’t. I promise that guy didn’t get those chiseled shoulders from a BowFlex all-in-one. And that woman’s toned abs didn’t happen by using the NordicTrack free strider which amazingly combines the movement of a treadmill, the low impact of a elliptical, and the fat burning of a stair-stepper. STOP IT! And this isn’t just limited to $1000+ items. A family member (who will remain nameless because hopefully they read this blog) asked us about buying “The Perfect Pushup” for someone on Amazon Prime Day. Listen fam, push-ups are free. When is the last time that person dropped down and knocked out 10 free pushups? Now, do you think buying some $30 handles is going to make that person more motivated? Nah. If you insist on buying some home cardio equipment, get a jump-rope. One study showed that jumping rope for 10 minutes daily showed the same cardiovascular improvement as jogging a half a mile daily. And unlike jogging, it can be done inside without a heavy, expensive machine. When’s the last time you packed your treadmill in your carry-on for that business trip?
Free Exercise
Here’s an easy list of free exercises and activities that either will cost you nothing, or very little up front.

  1. Running. Obvious health benefits, and it’s free (albeit uncomfortable) year round.
  2. Walking. We enjoy walking RRRjr together, as it’s free of cost, and we are free of distractions, and appreciate having the time to talk to one another.
  3. Yoga. Flexibility is an often overlooked aspect of physical fitness.
  4. Body weight exercises: squats & lunges for legs; planks & leg raises for abs; push-ups & dips for chest; rows & pull-ups for back; etc.
  5. Exercise DVD’s. Youtube is an incredible resource for all kinds of workout routines as well as instructional videos on how to perform exercises.
  6. Jumping rope. Extremely low cost with various benefits aforementioned.
  7. Riding a bike. Relatively small up-front cost, and added benefit of turning errands or trips into exercise opportunities, therefore potentially paying for itself.
  8. Hiking. Potential costs of having to drive to a location, or better yet, biking to the location.
  9. Yard work. Push mowing, raking leaves, picking up branches, & trimming bushes are all easy things to do to burn a few calories and increase the curb appeal of your property.

Well, there you have it. Our guide on how to avoid the financial pitfalls of fitness and turn it into a frugal activity that can shorten your working years while lengthening your living years. Keep an eye out for our upcoming article on healthy yet frugal eating.


  • Anissa

    Awesome information! I actually have 3 memberships and I use them all religiously and I workout outside! I love the tips that you provided in reference to free activities. Many people overlook the fact that they can do anything outside. Dress warmly in the winter. I will exercise outside as long as it’s not under 20 degrees.
    Thank you for sharing valuable information!

  • Amit

    Good article.
    Any thoughtfully written article on exercise is always enjoyable to read.
    Another big advantage of having weights (flexible dumbell’s) and a well maintained cycle is that you can actually sell them off after a few years and still get back a part of the cost which can be used to get the next exercise equipment upgrade. (With Gym membership the money is gone for good at the end of the year)

    • James Lowery

      Thanks for the feedback, Amit! You bring up a very interesting point about being able to resell the equipment when you determine it’s a good time for an upgrade. The risk really comes in when you unnecessarily start upgrading and pouring more money in when the benefit gain is nominal. But, when you need it, it can definitely be a positive.

  • Amit

    Gym membership may actually have benefits IF you actually use it to the fullest…but how many people actually do?
    If one has a good group that actually is serious about gym, then it may be beneficial…else having your own weights in your own house cuts out the travel time that can be used for additional sets..:-).
    The way I see it, most people simply don’t understand the true meaning of ‘upgrading’.
    You upgrade ONLY AFTER you have used the original product for a fairly long period of time and determined that a) you need to continue using a similar product b) the ‘new’ product actually has some quantifiable benefits (that you actually need) over the original. c) when the cost differential vs new feature is going to pay itself off(whatever the benefits that you want out of it).
    Almost everyone ends up buying products that have far too many features than what you have the need/time for.
    I have a cycle that I have been regularly using for over 6 years and have kept it in very good condition. When I purchased it…it was possibly the cheapest 21 geared bike that I found.(BTwin RR 5.0)
    It’s been giving me phenomenal service with hardly any downside…so whenever I have the urge to upgrade, the prices of the new upgrades don’t justify the slightly better (if any) features that they provide.
    This sort of analysis that I end up doing has resulted in a completely changed mindset whenever buying ANY ‘new & improved’ upgrade.

  • Austin Schofield

    Have you ever managed to bike up the steep incline to the top of Monte Sano or Rainbow Mountain? Since moving to Huntsville I’ve made it a personnel challenge of mine to bike from my home to their peaks and it was a challenge but I made it up Monte Sano the whole way without stopping… by the third try. I just hit Rainbow mountain for the first time today, and that is a steep incline. It certainly did not make me want to go hiking afterwards, you can call me a complainypants if you want. It makes me so excited to hear somebody encouraging cycling in the Huntsville Area, the city doesn’t feel bike friendly to me, but it may just be my apartment complexes location… Thanks so much for your blog it makes me so excited to see the writings of someone from where I live, it makes me feel like I live in Richmond Virginia with Choose FI, or Longemont Colorado with MMM.

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